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Apollo 13--"the successful failure".

It was to be America's third manned attempt to land on the moon. Apollo 13, set for launch on April 11, 1970, atop the powerful Saturn 5 rocket, would prove to be unlike anything experienced before or since in the exploration of space.

Following the historic missions of Apollo 11 and 12, the crew of Apollo 13 had a mission to expand on the successes achieved thus far in NASA's lunar landing program by landing in the Fra Mauro highlands. There, geologists hoped the astronauts would find valuable rocks perhaps holding secrets to the Moon's early formative period billions of years ago. The launch had a minor glitch-one of the engines did not fire as long as needed, which was compensated for by the other engines-but otherwise, the first few days proceeded in a now-familiar pattern.

The American public, however, seemed to barely take notice. Although it was less than a year before that Neil Armstrong thrilled the world, making history by becoming the first human to set foot on the moon, distractions like Vietnam, politics and the economy led many to consider Apollo 13 to be just a routine mission, barely registering except to space exploration fans. Few Americans even tuned into a live broadcast from space on the second day of the mission, when Apollo 13's crew was on the way to the Moon.

That was soon to change.

As Navy Captain James Lovell, commander of the ill-starred Apollo 13 mission described it:

"Fred [Haise] was still in the lunar module. Jack [Swigert] was back in the command module [CM] in the left-hand seat, and I was half-way in between, in the lower equipment bay, wrestling with TV wires and a camera, watching Fred come on down, when all three of us heard a rather large bang-just one bang. We suddenly realized that something else had occurred ... but exactly what we didn't know."

Swigert, in the CM reported, "... about two seconds elapsed when I had a master alarm and a main Bus 'B' undervolt [loss of power] ... I transmitted to Houston that we had a problem."

Lovell said, "I looked out the window and saw this venting ... my concern was increasing all the time. It went from 'I wonder what this is going to do to the landing' to 'I wonder if we can get back home again' ... and when I looked up and saw both oxygen pressures ... one actually at zero and the other one going down ... it dawned on me that we were in serious trouble."

The serious nature of the emergency was starkly evident to the crew and Mission Control. Lovell and his crew mates were more than 200,000 nautical miles out in space with a dead Service Module, including its main propulsion engine. The explosion had wiped out their main supply of life-sustaining oxygen and power.

The crew's salvation rested with the Lunar Module (LM), the oddly-shaped spacecraft designed to separate from the CSM, land two astronauts gently on the moon, sustain them while there and then carry them back to the mother ship in lunar orbit. But that mother ship was a partial wreck, drifting in space, and the LM became the lifeboat.

What followed was an epic struggle of skilled and highly trained astronauts working in close coordination with the ground-based team at Mission Control against the hostile environment of space.

By this time, the life and death drama unfolding hundreds of thousands of miles in space had captured the attention of people around the world. The team at Mission Control found themselves working under the glare of the world's media who had descended upon Johnson Space Center. Unlike the space program of the Soviet Union, NASA allowed the entire world to look over the shoulders of the mission control team as they worked to save the crew.

While the astronauts powered up the LM lifeboat, Mission Control set about mobilizing all the talents available to deal with the crisis. In addition to the contractor representatives normally assisting with the flight, the manufacturers of the major systems and sub-systems in the spacecraft made their top specialists immediately available. A coast-to-coast network of simulators, computers and experts was quickly hooked up. The operation was a tour de force of the breadth and depth of American technological competence.

Many of the difficulties that arose on the return were solved by "jury rigs" that were marvels of ingenuity, including an air purifier that 'scrubbed' the atmosphere in the spacecraft of carbon dioxide (produced by the crew's exhalations).

Numerous other perils challenged the crew and the ground controllers in Houston over the next 86 hours and 57 minutes--more than three days-while the stricken ship and crew huddled in their cramped 'lifeboat' Lunar Landing module named "Aquarius" trying to stay warm and conserve power. One of the most serious threats facing the crew was the severe damage to the spacecraft's power systems; they simply didn't have enough battery power to bring their craft down to a safe landing on Earth. Unless a solution was found, they would burn up upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Working under tremendous pressure of time as the speeding spacecraft approached earth at 25,000 miles per hour, the Mission Control team and the crew methodically worked their way through every problem.

The heroic tenacity, resourcefulness, ingenuity and courage of the JSC team and the astronauts resulted in the final victory which came on April 17: Odyssey's trio of orange-striped parachutes dropped the spacecraft into the gently rolling Pacific Ocean 3.5 nautical miles from the prime recovery ship, LPH-2.

As an aborted mission, Apollo 13 was officially classified as a failure, the first in 22 manned flights by NASA. But, in another sense, as a brilliant demonstration of the human spirit triumphing under almost unbearable stress, it is the most successful failure in the annals of space flight.

Some material excerpted from W. David Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions (Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-4214, 1989), pp. 386-93.
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Publication:All Hands
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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